EL PASO, Texas — The feud between President Donald Trump and Beto O’Rourke over immigration resumed at a distance Tuesday, driving the politics of a border wall further into the 2020 presidential campaign.
After O’Rourke said on MSNBC last week that he would “absolutely” remove an existing stretch of border wall from his hometown of El Paso, Trump told reporters in Washington on Tuesday that the statement marked “probably the end of his political career.”
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The opposite of that assessment appeared to be true nearly 2,000 miles away in the border town of El Paso, where O’Rourke did not announce his run for president on Tuesday — but might as well have.
Tying his political identity to this heavily Hispanic, heavily Democratic region of the Southwest, the former Texas congressman has seized on Trump’s border politics to create an opening for himself in the Democratic primary. In a speech accepting El Paso Inc.’s “El Pasoan of the Year” award, he said that on issues ranging from climate change to immigration, “El Paso is the answer.”
The call and response laid bare the durability of an issue that defined the 2016 presidential race — and is shaping the earliest stages of the 2020 campaign.
Trump’s and O’Rourke’s jabs came a week after the president appeared in El Paso to redouble his call for building a border wall, hosting a campaign-style rally that O’Rourke met with a massive march and protest. O’Rourke said Tuesday that while Trump “turned the focus of this country to the United States-Mexico border, … we stood up, not against him necessarily, but we stood up for ourselves.”
After the dueling rallies, O’Rourke traveled to the Midwest to meet with students in Milwaukee and Madison, Wis., before speaking at a gathering of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute in Chicago on Saturday. He has placed Trump’s call for border wall funding at the center of his likely campaign, arguing that walls are not only ineffective at reducing crime — a point supported by statistics in El Paso — but also that they endanger immigrants by encouraging them to cross the border in more remote locations.
“We don’t need another wall. We don’t need another fence,” O’Rourke said in Chicago. “Walls do not, as the president has claimed, save lives. Walls end lives.”
In recent weeks, O’Rourke has outlined proposals for extending citizenship to undocumented people known as Dreamers — who were brought the country illegally as children — and offering a path to citizenship for other undocumented immigrants. And his remark on MSNBC that he would remove existing barriers in El Paso forced other Democrats to respond.
Asked about O’Rourke’s statement on Friday, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York told Fox News, “I’d have to ask folks in that part of the country to see whether the fencing that exists today is helpful or unhelpful.” But, she added, “I could look at it and see which part he means and why, and if it makes sense, I could support it.”
On Tuesday, O’Rourke expanded on his remarks to MSNBC, telling reporters that “there is a role for physical barriers in some places” and that he would not necessarily remove border fencing in areas outside El Paso.
“I would work with local stakeholders, the property owners, the communities, those who actually live there to determine the best security solution,” O’Rourke said. “We saw in El Paso a solution in search of a problem imposed on us by people who did not live here.”
For Democrats confronting a looming general election campaign against Trump, the politics of immigration are fraught. A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll last week suggested that the American electorate is split on the construction of a border wall, while earlier polls indicated that the subject resonates more strongly with Republicans than Democrats. Even in El Paso, some supporters fret about O’Rourke focusing so heavily on a subject that Trump used to win election in 2016.
“I worry about the general election politics,” Hector Gutierrez Jr., an El Paso-based public affairs consultant, said. “But I admire the fact he’s willing to take a stand.”
Celinda Lake, a leading Democratic pollster and strategist, said immigration “fits Beto’s brand” and “he’s kind of in a unique position on this, having been a congressman from that area.”
“I think the major reason that so many people are engaging on immigration is because it is a seminal contrast with Donald Trump,” Lake said. “And right now, Democrats want to go beat Donald Trump.”
Frank Luntz, a veteran Republican consultant and pollster, wrote in an email that “it makes perfect sense for the Democratic candidates to focus on immigration, not because they are anti-wall but because it allows them to be anti-Trump.”
He added, “I’m surprised none of them have come up with a chant like ‘scrap the wall’ for their supporters.”
O’Rourke’s attention to immigration comes even as other Democratic contenders refocus on health care, childcare and taxes — and as O’Rourke asserts more centrist elements of his profile. While lauding Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Tuesday for adding “so much to the national conversation,” O’Rourke said, “I’m a capitalist.”
Asked about the role of democratic socialism in the Democratic Party, he said, “I don’t see how we’re able to meet any of the fundamental challenges that we have as a country without in part harnessing the power of the market.”
O’Rourke called climate change, one of the issues on which Sanders’ focuses, “the most immediate example of that.”
“If you’re going to bring the total innovation and ingenuity of this country to bear,” O’Rourke said, “our system as a country, our economy is going to have to be part of that.”
O’Rourke’s remarks came after Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, announced that he would run again for president in 2020. O’Rourke was a superdelegate for Hillary Clinton atthe 2016 Democratic National Convention and said he voted for her in the primary.
“I think it’s great that he’s getting in,” O’Rourke said of Sanders. “I think he’s added so much to the national conversation, whether it is health care, whether it’s access to higher education, whether it’s the power of small-dollar donors vs. the concentration of power that you see in PACs and the very wealthiest in this country.”
O’Rourke, who has been in talks with potential campaign strategists about a 2020 run, said he plans to decide within two weeks whether he’ll enter the race. But he said he “won’t be limited” by that timetable.
O’Rourke did not rule out running for Senate or some other office.
“I’m trying to figure out how I can best serve this country,” he said.
Speaking to about 600 people at El Paso’s Fort Bliss for the “El Pasoan of the Year” ceremony, O’Rourke called the award “the honor of a lifetime, and the pinnacle of what has made me who I am.”
O’Rourke talks about El Paso relentlessly, casting the West Texas city as an example of a diverse community reveling in its multiculturalism. Situated across the border from Juárez, Mexico, El Paso County has a population that is more than 80 percent Hispanic, and the region stands as a Democratic oasis in a heavily Republican state.
In a video played in the city Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) praised O’Rourke for the award he was receiving. Kennedy said that for as long as he had known O’Rourke, the Texan had always sought to “elevate” his hometown.
When O’Rourke took the stage, he joked that he wasn’t sure until he saw the video that Pelosi knew he existed.